‘Voices are not proof of God but evidence of psychological neurosis.’ Discuss. (35)


Here is my attempt at doing this question. I have to say, if a question on voices came up, I think a lot of students would avoid it, as the text-books have very little to say on this topic. It is tempting to just fall into a generic template for or against religious experience, but the topic of voices has some issues specific to it. For instance, and I didn’t say this in the essay, voices are usually linked to prophetic apparitions such as those of Fatima. The prophetic element is obviously explained by the need to convey a message. One of the strangest examples of voices is that of Pope Leo XIII on October 13 1884, 33 years to the day before the Fatima visions, hearing two voices – one kind and gentle, the other guttural and harsh, conversing. The conversation was supposedly between Christ and the devil, over how much time would be given to the devil for him to do his work in bringing down humanity.

Voices or locutions (from the latin locutio – speech) are a common aspect of certain types of religious experience, and are seen by the Catholic Church as a supernatural communication to the ear, imagination or directly to the intellect. They are supernatural in that the locution is meant to have its origin in a spiritual realm either heavenly or demonic. In most examples of this type of experience the voice is only heard by one person or a few individuals. Occasionally though, the locution does come from sound waves travelling to the ear, and thus has an external source Often, voices are accompanied by visions, but not always. A clear example of this is the revelations of the Virgin Mary to the three children Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco at Fatima in Portugal in 1917. The children saw a lady who showed them visions, for instance of hell, and they were also instructed by her as to the meaning of the visions. However, only Lucia and Jacinta heard and saw all that was revealed, whilst Francisco just saw the visions but did not hear the speech.

However, according to Teresa of Avila, voices should be tested to see if they have a natural or supernatural source. If natural they should be rejected as the result of an overactive imagination. If they are supernatural it is still to be discerned whether they are from God or the Devil. The only way this can be decided is in the effect it has on the person. St Teresa describes some of the effects of true locutions: they have a sense of certainty, power and authority, they bring calm and tranquility, and they are remembered for a long time. On the contrary, voices from the devil produce agitation or over-excitement in the recipient and make him fall prey to pride and other sins.

The issue that is often raised in connection to voices is the possibility of a non-supernatural origin, indeed skeptics would say that there is always a psychological explanation for this kind of religious experience. This is particularly the case with voices as they are very commonly reported by people suffering from certain kinds of mental illness such as schizophrenia or other psychotic episodes. The most common psychiatric explanation for psychosis is that part of the conscious mind of the person becomes overwhelmed by unconscious contents and seems to take on its own significance over and against the conscious ego-centre of the individual, such that they feel powerless to control it, and experience the psychosis in the form of voices or hallucinations which are usually unpleasant and which interfere with the autonomy of the mentally ill person.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James gives a psychological explanation for voices which seems at least sympathetic to this view. Firstly, he outlines the passivity of someone undergoing a religious experience, so that it seems to come from the ‘other’ and the receiver can do nothing about it. This would seem to echo the psychologist’s understanding of what happens in psychosis. Secondly, in James’ discussion of what he calls the ‘sick soul’, he explicitly draws parallels between a certain religious type, and certain kinds of mental illness in which voices occur. For instance, he describes the melancholy temperament of John Bunyan, who was ‘sensitive of conscience, beset by doubts, fears and insistent ideas, and a victim of verbal automatisms…these were usually texts of scripture, which…would come as if they were voices and fasten on his mind…’.

James goes on  to link the crisis that often comes to the sick soul type, and how they can become ‘twice-born’ ie. flooded with a newfound conviction in God, after much despair, and he says that these conversions are often linked to voices and visions. He relates how many religious founders or important figures such as George Fox or John Wesley heard voices because they were of ‘exalted sensibility’. He leaves open the question of whether these ‘incursions from beyond’ have their origin in the unconscious mind, or whether they have an ultimately supernatural origin.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, had a purely reductionist view of religious experiences, and locutions would have been for him a psychotic or neurotic manifestation of unresolved trauma from childhood.

Freud felt that Religious experience is explicable in terms of psychological factors acting on the personality, factors that are ultimately based on childhood traumatic experiences involving the parents. For Freud the human condition is one of fear in the face of our mortality, and helplessness in the face of nature. Thus we need comfort – as children this comes from the father, later in religion the father-in-the-sky. This religious comfort is wish-fulfilment – Freud believed that powerful wishes could find outlets in dreams, but also in other delusory states – essentially then religious visions, voices and experiences are hallucinations which come from our powerful need to feel control over our own helpless state.

With this interpretation, it must be remembered, Freud did not mean to dismiss religious experience as untrue, he said that just because religious experiences are illusions, it doesn’t mean they are false, an illusion like this is not an error, as it is based on one of the oldest, strongest wishes of humankind. Presumably he meant by this that there is a certain meaningfulness or significance to religious experience because they come from such a deep-rooted and universal source, but it is hard to see how I can retain my belief in the veridicality of my experience whilst also seeing it as a wish-fulfilment. If it is caused by my desire for security and meaning in my life its source can’t be in the divine or supernatural realm.

It seems to me that St. Teresa could very easily be updated for modern times to critique Freud. What she called voices from the devil, could be seen to be the voices that mentally ill people hear, as their effect is usually disconcerting and negative. Whereas if we apply her and James’ criteria of positive emotional and behavioural impact on the believer we have a way of easily distinguishing ‘real’ voices from false ones.

Freud’s disciple Jung claims that the divine reality cannot be a ‘nothing-but’ – voices have important psychological benefits which can lead to the integration of the personality – a wholeness that the conscious mind usually resists at its peril.

Equally, Swinburne argues we cannot just dismiss voices and other religious experiences with an automatic skepticism, indeed, his principles of credulity and testimony turn the tables on the skeptic and challenge him to take voices seriously.

In conclusion, it cannot be stated that voices are evidence of psychological neurosis, as this is a blanket statement, assuming a reductive materialism which ignores the epistemological problems with all experience, and which doesn’t do justice to the ‘fruits’ of the experience of the voices in the life of the believer. Clearly, there are many cases of voices being heard in neurotic episodes, but as stated above, and as James attests, unlike voices in religious experiences these do not lead to an integrated, stable, compassionate and insightful individual, capable of ministering to others and organising practical matters such as St. Teresa or John of the Cross (who both founded and led religious orders), but rather to individuals who sadly are unable to function well in society.

However, just because voices are not always evidence of psychological neurosis, by no means proves that they are from God – and it may be that there is some depth psychological explanation which is the best explanation for them. Both Jung and James thought that if there was a divine reality on the other side of the experiences of the mind, then it can only be known through that experience, and both remained essentially agnostic (with some qualification) on the matter.


Hume’s understanding of miracles is flawed. Discuss.

“Hume’s Understanding Of Miracles is Flawed” Discuss (35 Marks)

The general definition of a miracle is “an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws”. However it is often disputed whether these events should be attributed to some sort of divine agency or just be deemed coincidences. Stories of miracles have been around as long as humans have lived in communities and have caused many theists to believe that miracles are an example of God actively making a difference in the world, confirming their faith. This is evident in Christianity where Jesus is seen healing people and calming storms and Moses is seen to turn a staff into a snake. Similarly, in modern times, the statue Nandi in a Hindu Mandir has been seen drinking milk. Philosophers like David Hume have aimed to disprove the existence of God through the falsification of miracles. In this essay I will analyse Hume’s theory and use Richard Swinburne’s counter argument to confirm that Hume’s understanding of miracles is flawed.

David Hume was a famous 18th century atheist philosopher. According to Hume, a miracle is “ a violation of the laws of nature”. To him the laws of nature were fixed, rigid statements that describe how the world works. Hume also puts forward two separate but closely related arguments against miracles.

The first argument is inductive is taken from his maxim “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish”. This means that the probability of miracles actually happening is so low that it is irrational and illogical to believe that miracles do occur. From this, Hume then goes onto suggest a process for looking at miracles; when investigating a miracle evidence can be collected, for example a witness testimony, laws of nature appear to be fixed and unvarying, for example as we know it, gravity is the same throughout the universe, miracles appear to violate the laws of nature and therefore we should conclude that it is more likely that the report of a miracle happening is incorrect that the laws of nature being violated.

A criticism of this argument is that the fact that something is more probable is not, on its own proof that it didn’t happen. This is true for detectives who often solve a case by showing that evidence proves that what is improbable is actually true. To add, another criticism of this argument is that you cannot attribute the actions of an omnipotent God to the word “probable”. As God by definition is all powerful, only he can choose when to perform an action and does not have to conform to any pattern that we, as lesser beings, would deem ‘logical’. Thus, the probability of God performing an action is not directly dependent on the frequency at which He does them, but in His ability to perform them at His own discretion. To add, Hume’s first argument is tautological as an atheist following his maxim will automatically believe that the miracle never happened due to its improbability. However a theist responding to Hume’s argument could state that the miracle did happen because the omnipotent God performs them at his own discretion and in an unpredictable manner. This therefore means that the question of the existence of God remains unresolved.

Richard Swinburne also comments on Hume’s argument and agrees that natural laws are based on people’s experiences of observing the world. However, contrastingly, he states that Hume does not recognise that laws of nature are simply generalisations as they only communicate a general picture of how the world functions. Additionally he claims that Hume fails to recognise that laws are “corrigible”. The law of nature is the best description of how the world works, as we currently can understand it but there may be soon be new discoveries that mean the “laws of nature” must be modified. This is shown in the fact that pre- socratic philosophers believed the world was flat but due to technology we know this to be incorrect. Swinburne also states that Hume is incorrect in saying that no evidence is reliable for us to say that miracles can happen as there are ways of collecting reliable evidence.Namely, through the testimonies of other people about their miraculous experiences, the understanding of modern science and knowledge of what is impossible, by means of memories of witnesses and through physical evidence i.e medical examinations.

On the other hand, the fact that Hume’s inductive argument can be challenged does not mean he is wrong. Instead the question is raised again of whether based on experiences of the world, the occurrences of miracles are improbable or not.

Hume’s second argument is that of practicality. He stated that often miracle accounts are taken from those who have a lack of education. This means stories can be exaggerated as gossiping is a part of human nature. Additionally Hume claimed that miracles only occur amongst the “ignorant and barbarous”. He argued that if you look at the histories of many countries, their earliest stories are full of miracles and visions, but, as the nation develops and becomes more civilised and educated, these kinds of stories disappear. This is a logical argument as it is true that newspapers of the 21st century do not tend to report many cases of miracles happening. In this argument, Hume also went on to say that reports of miracles happening in different religions contradict each other. He wrote that of one religion claims that a miracle proved their religion true, the value of their statement is cancelled out by the fact that other religions also claim the miracles that happen to them, confirm their religion.

In evaluation of Hume’s second argument, he wrote at a time where the support for miracles came from word of mouth. However, today, miracles are supported by unbiased, scientific evidence. This is shown at Lourdes, a place of Christian pilgrimage, where 68 carefully arrested claims of miraculous healing have occurred. The documents provided in support of their claims have been given by doctors whose evidence is incontrovertible. Furthermore, another criticism of this argument is that Hume sets so many criteria for the acceptance of miraculous events that he is not keen to allow himself to say that any extraordinary event could be miraculous. To add Hume ignores the significant effect that miracles have on their environments and those affected. For example Cardinal de Retz saw someone physically grow back a new limb- surely this would be a convincing account.

Richard Swinburne further criticises Hume by saying that he provides no method of recognising when one has a suitable large group of educated people and does not state which level of education is required for their intelligence to be sufficient. Swinburne considers what counts as “ignorant and barbarous” and suggests that it could mean a lack of familiarity with science. This gives more problems for Hume as many educated people claim to experience miracles. Additionally, Swinburne question whether miracles in different religions cancel each other out. He states that because most miracles concern God helping someone they are not about proving one religion’s beliefs correct and proving another religion’s beliefs wrong. To add Swinburne is a sceptic and automatically rejects stories about miracles without considering the evidence.

Swinburne then goes on to give his own definition of a miracle as “an occurrence of a non- repeatable counter instance to a law of nature”. This means a miracle is an event that does fit in with the laws of nature as we understand them, but equally, the event on its own is not enough to prove the law of nature inaccurate. He ensures that laws of nature are good general descriptions of how the world works but that does not remove the possibility of a miracle occurring. He then goes on to state the process in which you should devise an argument for a miracle; having identified the reliable evidence in any debate you must assess the evidence and deduce a conclusion. Swinburne’s process for dealing with claimed miracles that happened in the past is to devise a main argument, then subsidiary arguments. For the main argument you must accept as many sources of evidence as possible. The more evidence, the stronger the probability of the miracle happening. For the subsidiary arguments, different sources should be consistent and supportive of each other. Additionally, the value you place on a particular piece of evidence should depend upon its “empirical reliability” i.e of the witness is a known liar, similarly you should avoid rejecting, without good reason, evidence that may be relevant to the said miracle.

In conclusion I believe a miracle can be defined as a violation of the laws of nature as we know them which subjectively can be attributed to a divine agency. Overall, I believe that Hume’s argument is weak as it is tautological, generalises the term “laws of nature” and in being sceptical, fails to recognise the unchanging nature of science as we being to make new discoveries. I have used the support of Swinburne for my evaluation of Hume’s argument as he convincingly denotes Hume’s argument as being limited in its methods and unaware of the miracles experienced by intellectuals. For this reason I am more likely to favour Swinburne’s criteria for an argument in favour of miracles as it is logical and takes into account the profound effects that miracles have on people.


My comments:
A-grade essay.

Hume’s argument should be seen as a whole – so many criticisms seem to separate the two parts of his argument but they actually make much more sense together. Given that he says in part one that a sensible man weighs the evidence, and given that the evidence from the nature of miracles is going to be as entire as possible (because a miracle is by its very nature a one-off compared to the usual experience to the contrary), then a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. And if the evidence is a one-off testimony – from a suspect source – then that testimony is really not worthy of consideration. The clever thing here is that the testimony cannot be considered apart from where or who it comes from, so that part one and two of the argument really need to be considered as a whole.

The second thing to say is that Swinburne seems to want to have his cake and eat it in your essay. If laws of nature are generalisations and corrigible, then what was thought to be a miracle isn’t really one, as it fits in with a revised law. But Swinburne makes other points. He does say that the laws of nature are statistical rather than prescriptive, but he also examines the possibility of ‘non-repeatable counter-instances of a law of nature’. This would prevent the miracle from being explained by a future revision of a law of nature.

I think then, in general it would be worth doing a little more of the AO1 explanation for both Hume and Swinburne, so that the examiner can see you clearly understand the argument.

A2 OCR Philosophy of Religion Predictions 2016

Well here we are again, with just over a week until the exam, what is likely to come up this year? I have compiled a list with various questions that it might be worth practising, and some of them I provide links to exemplars for those questions. I do this most years, always with the caveat that it is never a good idea to base your revision on just these predictions, but it can’t do any harm to have a good look at them.


1.Miracles questions. Both myself and Peter Baron think the Miracles topic has been under-represented in past years; I think there could be a question on Hume’s understanding of miracles, which there has never been, and at Peped (Peter Baron’s site) they think there could be one on coincidence miracles. My question is:

‘Hume’s understanding of miracles is flawed’. Discuss. (35) (exemplar here) (discussion here)

and Peped:

Assess the claim that miracles are simply coincidences given religious significance. (35)

There has apparently never been a question on Holland and coincidence miracles.


2.Religious language. Specifically verification. It hasn’t come up before. Therefore:

Critically assess A J Ayer’s theory of verification. (35) (Exemplar here) (powerpoint here)

(my guess)

or what amounts to something similar:

‘God-talk is meaningless’. Discuss. (35)


3. Religious experience came up twice last year (yes revelation falls under religious experience), but Peter Baron’s site has a great question on this which as he says, has never come up:

‘Voices are not proof of God but evidence of psychological neurosis.’ Discuss. (35)


4. A few from the nature of God/life after death (just for s**ts and giggles):

God’s foreknowledge is incompatible with human free will. Discuss. (35)

Critically assess the belief that God is omnibenevolent. (35). (from Peped)

‘Resurrection is more coherent than reincarnation’. Discuss. (35)


Last Thoughts on Exams

I’ve just had a look at my 2014 predictions – out of 5 questions that I suggested 3 came up although only two were on the specific area – numinous experience and body/soul distinction, whereas one – Biblical miracles came up instead of Hume on miracles. The two (or three if you count Hume) that didn’t come up then I’ve rolled over to this year because – hey the longer it goes not coming up the more likely it is to come up in the future right? Not sure what Hume would say about that…

Anyway, that’s Hume, Ayer and Revelation as three of my guesses for this year. Check out my A2 predictions post for the others. I do hope you get the questions you want dear students – and good luck!

Part 2 – There will always be more plausible explanations for religious experience than God. Discuss.

In my last post I proposed some ways of looking at this question, and tried to unpack what I thought it was asking you to do. I discussed the sceptical challenge which forms the basis of the question – that other explanations for religious experience will always be more plausible because they would have more empirical backing – this is essentially a reductionist challenge: “Nowadays we know that science can explain all that”, as Caroline Franks Davies puts it.

But can science explain all that? We need to take a step back into epistemology to work out the answer to that. Swinburne’s principle of credulity (it is a principle of rationality that if it seems to a subject that x is present, (in the absence of special considerations) then x probably is present) makes experience innocent until proven guilty and thus turns the table on the sceptic. Notice that it is a principle of rationality. All experience is subsumed under this principle – we just find we must operate as if it were the case – no philosopher has yet managed to provide inductive justification for our confidence in our experiences, memories and reasoning processes, but that is no reason to become sceptical about them. Notice also that there can be no proof for such a principle of rationality, because any attempt to prove it would use just the processes and experiences which are under consideration, and thus would be viciously circular. So the principle of credulity, as a principle of rationality, operates somewhat like an axiom does in maths, in that we have to assume its truth in order to get anywhere.

Now all this means is that the sceptic cannot just dismiss all religious experiences out of hand as not having inductive evidence to back them up like normal experience – as all experiences which generate beliefs are initially granted credulity. If we decide later to discount an experience because it could be shown that such an experience was unreliable, then that is not a problem – therefore things like dreams and hallucinations have become known to be unreliable and so we apply what Swinburne calls the special considerations.

So the principle of credulity is not a license to be gullible – just a placing of the onus on the sceptic to show why an experience is not veridical, rather than an assumption that because an experience doesn’t meet certain criteria of validity, it cannot therefore be veridical.

Swinburne recognises certain limitations on the principle of credulity called subject-related challenges – these include reductionist and conflicting claims challenges. These special considerations include things such as; the subject has been shown to be unreliable in the past, or was in a certain state, or had a certain cultural background or psychological mindset such that it is very unlikely experiences under those circumstances were veridical, or that it is very likely the subject would have had the experience whether the supposed percept (the thing perceived) was there or not.

It is worth noting that when it comes to reductionist challenges, they are recognised as presenting problems for arguments from religious experience. Caroline Franks Davies doesn’t think a pragmatic approach like James works either – she says

the ‘fruits not roots’ approach to religious experience is not so successful, since the way an experience is caused and its veridicality are inextricably linked. An argument from religious experience cannot be built on experiences which have therapeutic value but no evidential force”

However, she doesn’t think reductionist challenges present insuperable difficulties for arguments from religious experience. She examines various reductionist explanations for religious experience such as hypersuggestibility, deprivation, sexual frustration, regression and mental illness, and concludes that there is not enough evidence to conclude that any of these are correlated with religious experience. She concludes that such reductionist challenges are unlikely to succeed on their own.

There will always be more plausible explanations for religious experience than God. Discuss.


Recently I posted a set of questions which I thought could possibly come up in the examinations. I wanted to focus on the religious experience one.

The first thing to notice about this question is that it is a general question on religious experience. Thus it is leaving the field quite open for you to explore different areas. You could bring in Swinburne, James and others, you could use a wide variety of criticisms from Mackie to Dawkins or all sorts of challenges from sociology and psychology. Indeed, I would guess that many of those ‘more plausible explanations’ will derive from fields such as these, for instance Freud would see religious experience as a neurosis, Durkheim as aspects of the structure of social groups.

The second thing to notice is that the question is framed as a logical statement – you could rephrase it: “From the very nature of supposed religious experience, any explanation that doesn’t require God will be more plausible” Why? Because some would argue that an explanation that involved God would need to have shown not just that the experiencer seemed to experience God but that it was also true that she experienced God, and given that the supposed bases which we use as foundation for our knowledge about uncontroversial things such as tables and frogs are not there, it would seem that a lack of empirical evidence would undermine religious experience and therefore always make more empirically testable explanations more plausible.

This is essentially Dawkins position, as it is many atheists, but you should be able to show awareness of how Swinburne’s work on religious experience, particularly his principles of credulity and testimony, have revealed the flaws in this kind of approach.

Alternatively you could use James’ pragmatic approach and argue that a common core gives us no reason to believe that religious experience is only psychological, for example.

Finally, it might be a good opportunity to show some of your synoptic knowledge by arguing that even if religious experiences do point to God – the notion of God is so incoherent (eg. problems with omniscience etc.) that other explanations will always be better.

In part 2 of this I will explain Swinburne’s account in more detail and try to show how it deals with the ‘lack of empirical evidence’ question.

The philosophical problems with belief in an afterlife

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, Robin Williams, 1998, (c)PolyGram Filmed Entertainment/courtesy Everett Collec

My somewhat odd blog post here describes a dream I had recently about hell. The concept of hell (and indeed of heaven) raises a number of philosophical questions, perhaps the principle one of which is: Would an all-loving, perfectly good God condemn someone to unending suffering in hell as punishment for a specific sin or sins? On the face of it, it seems too unbalanced – for even the most heinous of crimes, surely there will come a point where the punishment must end?

There are significant disagreements among theologians upon this point. Some modern theologians, notably Hans Urs Von Balthasar have taken the position that universal salvation is possible, in other words that God will condemn no-one to hell for eternity. Others think this a betrayal of scripture and the Church Fathers – indeed, Christ spoke of the hellfire and eternal punishment in various places in the Gospels (eg. Matt 5:22, 10:28, 23:33)


click here for an excellent discussion of this book

The question needs to be placed in the light of the considerable problem which the existence of evil raises for believers. In order to make sense of the evil actions of certain people, some of whom escape earthly punishment for their crimes, believers usually turn to the explanation that justice will be done in the afterlife, that God will set right the wrongs done in this life.

It therefore makes sense that some afterlife punishment and reward would be needed in order to maintain belief in a just Creator. The problem is the separation of God’s mercy and God’s justice. A God who forgives all no matter what they have done would be just as unjust as a God who punishes all. There is another problem with arguing that God forgives all. Johannes Bokmann puts it like this: “If one were certain of attaining the ultimate goal no matter what, a quite essential motivation to conversion and absolute Christian resolve would be lost.”

The OCR exam board has focused on this area in the past with questions such as: “To what extent is belief in an afterlife necessary in resolving problems raised by the existence of evil?”. The suggestions for answering this are that candidates can focus on the theodicies, or discuss whether reincarnation is less problematic than belief in heaven and hell. The key thing to do though, in the A02, is to evaluate what kind of God is implied by punishment/reward models of the afterlife, and whether, given some of the inconsistencies which arise in God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence on these models, whether such models are necessary to solve the problem of evil.

I will end this post with some quotations from Balthasar’s book:

“Christ allocates ruin to no one; he himself is pure salvation, and whoever stands by him stands in the sphere of salvation and grace. The calamity is not imposed by him, but exists wherever man has remained distant from him; it arises through continuing to abide with oneself. The word of Christ, as the offering of salvation, will then make evident that the lost man has drawn the boundaries himself and cut himself off from salvation.” (Cardinal Ratzinger)

“Every shutting up of the creature within his own mind, is – in the end – hell” (C.S. Lewis)

“Therefore we must read the New Testament, and read it ever anew, in the light of divine love. Certainly there is talk of fire, worm and the second death that excludes one from the kingdom. Christ does not recognize the evildoers, distances them from him. But hell, as refusal of divine love, always exists on one side only: on the side of him who persists in creating it for himself. It is, however, impossible that God himself could cooperate in the slightest way in this aberration.”

I want to end with a parable from Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov, which Von Balthasar quotes. It seems to me to completely capture the intricate connections between free will, sin, evil and God’s divine omnibenevolence better than pages of philosophical and theological analysis:

“Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.”


Numinous Experience

Ok, so it’s time to move on to numinous experience, otherwise I won’t cover all the topics I said I would before the exam on Wednesday.

I thought up the question ‘Numinous experience is incapable of supporting belief in God’. Discuss, firstly because I don’t think a question on it has ever come up before, and also because I think there is a strong argument that the concept of numinous experience (as devised by Rudolf Otto and set out in The Idea of the Holy) is not really capable of being an argument for God’s existence. I am fairly sure Otto didn’t intend any explicit ‘argument from religious experience’ anyway, but there is obviously an implicit thread about experience pointing to God in his book which can be picked up and evaluated.


In order to understand the numinous a passage from The Wind in the Willows may by useful:

“’This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,’ whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. ‘Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!’
Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror— indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy— but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend. and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.”

Whilst this is children’s literature and not a ‘real’ experience, it nonetheless conveys powerfully the sense of otherness, awe-inspiring and majestic, which characterises the numinous.

The term numinous is derived from the Latin word numen meaning ‘divine power’. The numinous really refers to the non-rational element of religion, which is properly the object of mysticism. The concepts of religion, the doctrines and moral codes, are the rational element, which according to Otto, derive ultimately from the non-rational numinous element.

The element of absolute otherness associated with the numinous leads to the experience of ‘creature-feeling’ in the worshipper, where the overpowering element of the numinous causes us to experience our own feeling of dependence, that we are mere creatures, “submerged and overwhelmed by our own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures.”

This notion of ‘creature-feeling’ is clearly influenced by Schleiermacher’s (more on him in the next post) ‘feeling of absolute dependence’, but Otto is keen to distinguish the two from each other. Schleiermacher meant by his term the feeling of contingency dependent on being the creation of a creator. Otto argues that the conceptualisation of overpoweringness in terms of a causal relationship between creator and created misses out an important aspect of the numinous experience. He says:

“In one case you have the fact of being created; in the other, the status of the creature…with this latter type of consciousness, we are introduced to a set of ideas quite different to those of creation or preservation. We come upon the ideas, first, of the annihilation of self, and then, as its complement, of the transcendent as the sole and entire reality.”

Essentially Otto believes that the numinous, at its base, goes beyond the feelings of trust and love of Schleiermacher’s analysis into a non-rational sphere that occupies the entire being with a bewildering strength. “If a man does not feel what the numinous is, when he reads the sixth chapter of Isaiah, then no ‘preaching, singing, telling,’ in Luther’s phrase, can avail him” Otto writes.

Therefore the numinous experience is ineffable, and indeed the via negativa of the mystics may be a particularly useful way of trying to grasp what Otto means for the student who has completed the Religious Language topic.

Continued in the next post – evaluation of Otto.

More Thoughts on Charles Taylor, Secularity and Miracles

In the last post I set out a brief overview of Charles Taylor’s critique of the secular. But how might this relate to Hume’s definition of and argument against miracles? I want to set out some points that may be useful.

1. Hume really seems to believe that the human approach to the world is that of a detached observer weighing up the likelihood of the evidence, but of course this ignores the fact that we are embodied minds, in a process of coping with the world. The view that we are able to stand outside of this network of significances in a neutral space is misguided. Therefore, Hume’s approach to miracles is misguided.

Another way of putting this point is that Hume deals with testimony for miracles, but his argument has nothing to say on what he would do if personally faced with a miracle – would he be able to be so detached?

Taylor points to the difference between the kind of philosophy Aristotle was doing, and that which Descartes did – a journey of nearly 2000 years which led from a view of humans as embodied beings upon which things make an impact, to a completely dualistic system in which the mind is able to stand apart from and rationally weigh up the embodied experiences.

2. We have seen from point (1) above that Hume’s epistemology is rather naive; it also leads to an empirical method and an understanding of induction that is too narrow. To use Taylor’s phrase, Hume is working with a closed world structure based on a very limited view of what counts as evidence. This is particularly evident in his four a posteriori arguments which discredit evidence because it comes from ‘ignorant and barbarous nations’, and from people  of  ‘insufficient education’. If you decide, before you see what the issues are that interest you, that only certain kinds of evidence are going to count, then you are loading the dice in favour of the outcome which you want.

3. Finally, this selecting of a narrow range of evidence is evident in the ‘violation’ definition of miracle as it presupposes a prescriptive rather than descriptive understanding of the laws of nature, which as we saw here, is mistaken.

I hope this has been of some help with Hume’s concept of miracles, it may give you an alternative philosopher with which to critique Hume, and one who is still very much alive! Have a look here to see a talk that Charles Taylor gave recently.

Charles Taylor, Secularity, and Miracles

In Charles Taylor’s essay What is Secularity? (in Transcending Boundaries in Philosophy and Theology, ed. Vanhoozer, K, and Warner, M, Ashgate, 2007) he develops the idea of closed world structures (CWS) which he uses to explain how the modern secular age came about.

He asks how belief in God has come to be seen as one option among many, when five hundred years ago unbelief was “close to inconceivable” for most people. He says that two things had to happen:

1. There had to come about a culture in which a clear division is made between the natural and the supernatural.

2. “It had to come to seem possible to live entirely within the natural.”

He says that number 2 came about inadvertently as a result of the striving for number 1.

Modernity, according to Taylor, has developed very powerful versions of phase 2. These are ‘closed’ or ‘horizontal’ worlds, which leave no place for the transcendent (or ‘vertical’) – they even render it inaccessible or unthinkable. I will give a brief picture of the contemporary western CWS.

The CWS he describes is the one most commonly held in the west today – a picture of individuals as knowing agents who build up their knowledge of the world by taking in information and forming mental pictures from which they build theories. An understanding of science often combines with this structure, and a series of priority relations tell us what is learned before what. Sense experience acts foundationally – “I must grasp the world as a fact before I can posit values.” In this CWS, any contact with the transcendent must come as an inference and “it is obvious that the inference to the transcendent is at the most extreme and most fragile end of a series of inferences; it is the most epistemically questionable.”

Taylor uses the work of post-modern thinkers such as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty to deconstruct these ‘master-narratives’ of modernity and to show how they are constituted by a “massive self-blindness” – the supposed neutrality of secularity actually appears to be bogus.

Taylor explains the three aspects of a challenge to such an epistemological picture:

1. Our grasp of the world can’t be accounted for in the simple terms of mental representations of outer reality – such representations only get their meaning for us from a more fundamental process of ‘coping’ with the world as bodily, social and cultural beings.

2. This ‘coping’ activity is not primarily that of individuals, but is a social process which we are inducted into.

3. We do not deal with objects as part of the coping process, but what are called by Heidegger pragmata – the focal points of our coping, and which therefore already come to us with meaning and relevance.

The upshot of all these arguments is that they completely overturn the priority relations of foundationalist epistemology – as Taylor says, “there is no priority of the neutral grasp of things over their value”; things that are considered to be late and questionable inferences are seen to be part of our primary predicament, so that the sense that the divine comes as a remote inference is completely undercut by this challenge.

“From within itself, the epistemological picture seems unproblematic. It comes across as an obvious discovery we make when we reflect on our perception and acquisition of knowledge. All the great foundational figures – Descartes, Locke, Hume – claimed to be just saying what was obvious once one examined experience itself reflectively. Seen from the deconstruction, this is a most massive self-blindness. Rather what happened is that experience was carved into shape by a powerful theory which posited the primacy of the individual, the neutral, the intra-mental as the locus of certainty. What was driving this theory? Certain ‘values’, virtues, excellences: those of the independent, disengaged subject, reflexively controlling his own thought processes, ‘self-responsibly’ in Husserl’s phrase. There is an ethic here, of independence, self-control, self-responsibility, of a disengagement which brings control; a stance which requires courage, the refusal of the easy comforts of conformity to authority, of the consolations of an enchanted world, of the surrender to the promptings of the senses. The entire picture, shot through with ‘values’, which is meant to emerge out of the careful, objective, presuppositionless scrutiny, is now presented as having been there from the beginning, driving the whole process of ‘discovery’.”

Now, looking at this argument presented by Taylor, we can see several important points to bear in mind when examining Hume on miracles. In my next post I will present what I think are the most important.